Last year, the Justice Department published a scathing report on Ferguson, Missouri’s police department and municipal court, finding they were fundamentally racist. The report, which concluded that “the harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans,” led to the resignations of Ferguson’s city manager, police chief and municipal judge.
Now, in yet another indictment of the city’s racial politics, a judge has ruled that the way Ferguson elects its school board (which is a separate jurisdiction from the city) also discriminates against the city’s black population.
The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Missouri NAACP in December 2014, four months after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. The group argued that the board’s at-large voting system diluted the voting power of the city’s black community, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“Voting in Ferguson-Florissant usually results in the election of candidates preferred by white voters only,” the group said in a release, noting that no more than two of the board’s seven members were black before the suit was filed, in a district where African-Americans comprise nearly 80% of the population.
“The area also suffers from severe patterns of racial inequality across a wide spectrum of other socioeconomic indicators, such as income and employment,” the group said said.
U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel agreed. In a 119-page opinion, he said that the area’s black community has suffered a history of discrimination that inhibits their participation in the political process, so that they are disadvantaged by an at-large electoral arrangement.
“There is a history of officially sanctioned discrimination in the region and the district, and that history is not just a distant memory,” he wrote, chronicling the violent, segregation-riddled history of the area that has to ongoing political disenfranchisement.
“As the Eight District has recognized depressed political participation is among ‘the recognized historic effects of discrimination in the areas of health, employment, and education,’” he wrote.
The school board argued that the current system was adequate, noting that three of the seven current board members are now black, a percentage that is proportional to the racial breakdown of registered voters in the district.
“The District continues to believe that the current at-large electoral system is best for African-American representation,” Cindy Ormsby said in a statement.
But Sippel said that the registered voting population was in fact evidence that the system was not fair, because the area’s history of discrimination had suppressed black registrants.
“Impediments that may prevent or hinder particular groups from exercising their voting rights include felony disenfranchisement, the lack of homeownership, and other socioeconomic indicators that are barriers to registration,” Sippel wrote. He found extensive evidence of all these in Ferguson.
“It’s not unique to Ferguson,” she said.
On Friday, Sippel will rule on what remedies the district can pursue.